TRAVERSE CITY — When Larry Glass took a seat in front of his TV Saturday evening to watch the Northwestern Wildcats take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the former Northwestern hoops coach was hoping for a better result — but he could not have asked for a more exciting game.
Glass, who rose the Leland girls basketball team to prominence as head coach, watched as the Wildcats battled the Bulldogs. Northwestern looked dead in the water early, trailing by as many as 22 points, before making a furious and valiant comeback attempt to get within five before falling 79-73.
“They’ve just been having a year you can only dream about, and they’re making it work,” said Glass, who became head coach in 1963 at 28 years old. “The more you do that, especially when you’re not supposed to, the more likely you are to win — unless you run into a brick wall of an all-time great time.”
This year’s Gonzaga is not an “all-time great” and was no “brick wall,” but the Bulldogs did enough to close the book on Northwestern’s season.
“Gonzaga is interesting because they’ve come out of a small league almost every year and made it to the tournament,” Glass said. “They kind of get put down for coming out of a small league, but the fact is when they get in the tournament, they usually handle it pretty well.”
The six-point loss brought to an end a season that saw the Wildcats catch March Madness fever for the first time in the 78-year history of the tournament. But Glass said Northwestern would have made it decades ago had today’s selection process been in place during his tenure.
Before 1975 when the tournament was expanded 32 teams, only the champions of each conference made the tournament. Glass left the helm toward the end of the ‘68-69 season when Northwestern was ranked as high as No. 12 but was still absent from the tournament.
“That’s always rankled me a little bit when they say Northwestern is there for the first time ever,” Glass said. “We were finishing in the top half of the league half the time, and we never got the invite. We’d have been there — or could’ve been there — several times. That’s one of the reasons Northwestern hasn’t been there. For several years, it was win the Big Ten championship or go home.”
When Glass filled out his bracket this year, he had the Wildcats reaching the Sweet 16. Although they fell a win short, Glass still enjoyed the season-long ride.
“I love it. I was very pleased they won (Thursday against Vanderbilt). That’s been a long time coming. It’s really been fun to see them do it,” Glass said. “It’s a very positive thing for them. I would say they’ve got a chance to do a lot of good things, and have already done a lot of good things.”
Glass wasn’t the only local with Northwestern connections cheering on the Wildcats Saturday. Traverse City Central alum Tyler Sylvester, Kingsley alum Cody Cejda and Suttons Bay alum Tory Lindley were hanging on every pass, dribble and shot. Cejda is the director of football operations at NU, and both Sylvester and Lindley work in the Sports Medicine department.
“Being able to see the guys on a day-to-day basis, I’m just been really, really impressed with the way they’ve handled it, given the amount of weight of history that’s been on their shoulders,” said Lindley, who watched the game live at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. “They have followed (head coach Chris Collins’) lead to — it sounds cliché — to take each game as it comes and try not to think about the weight of the entire season and 78 years of history.”
Lindley expects Northwestern’s run along with its rich academic history and more than $400 million of new athletic facilities in the future will help cement it as a desired destination.
“The timing of all of this coming together has and will continue to have a huge impact on attracting the right kind of student-athletes for our culture and our program,” he said.
Lindley was part of more than 120 Northwestern staff members that chartered a plane and made the trip to Salt Lake City. Although the team’s and their time in Utah is now over, Lindley said it has been “a fantastic experience.”
“It’s great to be in the arena, today,” he said. “From a distance, it’s fun to see so much purple. It’s that family atmosphere that stretches across all our alumni and fans. I think everybody is behind our program and will be for a long time to come.”